Film Reviews

Playback St. Louis

November 11, 2011

by Joe Hodes

Two excellent documentaries illustrate the rise and consequences of fanaticism.…

The second documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in the Holocaust or how the human spirit adapts and tries to thrive under impossible circumstances. Song of the Lodz Ghetto provides a history of the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz, concentrating on Yankele Herskowicz and other troubadours whose songs made life under the Nazi thumb livable. Adapted from existing Polish, German, and Yiddish tunes, the lyrics ranged from ditties poking fun at the ghetto’s reviled ruler, Nazi puppet Chaim Rumkowski, to ballads of anguish at lost families and a lost world. The film features many remarkable sequences, not the least of which are current-day clips of ghetto survivors happily singing tunes they haven’t heard in over half a century, but were either seared into their minds or were their only refuge during that horrible time. More than just a documentary, it is also a concert film, as modern-day Jewish quartet, Brave Old World, bring the songs to life. The film is an excellent blend of interviews with scholars and survivors, period photos and clips from newsreels, and performances by the modern-day band and some of the singer survivors themselves. The film even raises (even if it can’t fully answer) the question of did the singers do some harm as well as good. Not unlike the band on the Titanic, did these singers encourage calm and complacency when resistance and struggle were called for? The ghetto boss Rumkowski may have sensed it himself, as he is quoted in the film as having said, “Better a singer on the street than a murderer in [my] office.”

Don’t let the opportunity that SLIFF affords to see some of the best in the indie and world cinema to pass you by. | Joe Hodes


Now Magazine

September 2, 2010

Rating: NNNN (out of five)

Song of the Lodz Ghetto:
by Norman Wilner

The 15th Ashkenaz Festival got under way earlier this week at Harbourfront Centre, but the treasure of its film component plays tonight at the Sheppard Grande. It’s the world premiere of Song of the Lodz Ghetto, a “documentary program” by David Kaufman that pays tribute to the resilience of the Jewish residents of the infamous Polish ghetto through the music they composed to spite the Nazis.

That music was ultimately recorded as an album by the jazz-klezmer band Brave Old World, and concert footage of them performing a dozen or so songs – in the original Yiddish – gives Kaufman’s doc its spine. Interviews with survivors and historians, illustrated with archival photographs, fill in the larger historical context of upbeat-sounding numbers with lines like “We must not be silent / It’s better to break windows.”


The Toronto Star

August 31, 2010

Song of the Lodz Ghetto:
Documentary celebrates Polish rebel troubadour
by Martin Knelman

The song was called “Rumkowski Chaim,” and it was sung in the crowded streets of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland almost 70 years ago. It was a cheerfully subversive, more than slightly sarcastic expression of resistance for 160,000 people trapped in history’s worst nightmare.

There are many revelations in Song of the Lodz Ghetto – Toronto independent filmmaker David Kaufman’s horrifying but spirit-raising new documentary…But one of the most striking is that almost all Lodz survivors have vivid memories of that song and the man who wrote it and sang it.

His name was Yankele Herszkowicz, whom Kaufman describes as “the Bob Dylan of Lodz” – a rebel troubadour. A starving tailor with a genius for writing lyrics and setting them to familiar Yiddish or American tunes, Herszkowicz sustained a meagre existence on the money and food people gave him for offering them some relief from the horror of their everyday lives.

The reason this one song has endured beyond the others that he wrote and sang: It daringly targeted Chaim Rumkowski, a former orphanage manager who was chosen by the Nazis to be the boss of the ghetto – thereby given the dreadful responsibility of deciding who would live and who would die. Reviled by many as a monster who made a pact with the devil, Rumkowski in retrospect is credited by Lodz survivors who appear in Kaufman’s film as the man who saved them from death – though in the end, he was not able to save himself from Hitler’s killing machine.

What makes Song of the Lodz Ghetto different from other dark Holocaust documentaries is that it’s also a stirring concert film. Interspersed with the facts and memories of life in this place of misery is the music of the remarkable group Brave Old World – a contemporary band of jazz-oriented Jewish musicians who deliver unforgettable performances of songs from the ghetto…

The involvement of Brave Old World in performance was key to Kaufman’s concept, and he actually brought the group to Toronto for a 2007 concert at the Isabel Bader Theatre in order to secure performance footage for the film….

Lodz was Poland’s first ghetto, established in early 1940. Under Nazi orders, more than 160,000 Jews were squeezed into a slum of four square kilometres, surrounded with barbed wire. There were no phones, few jobs and not enough food to keep its inhabitants alive. About 10,000 survived. The others either died of disease or starvation or were shipped to Nazi death camps and gassed. Yankele Herszkowicz was determined to survive so he could tell the world the story of what happened in Lodz…


The Canadian Jewish News

August 26, 2010

remarkable film about lodz ghetto troubador
by Joseph Serge, Arts Editor

Yankele Herszkowicz was a poor tailor who became the Lodz Ghetto’s beloved and popular streetsinger. His songs, dark but humorous satires on life in the ghetto, raised the spirits of Jews living there – at least as much as possible.

David Kaufman’s documentary is a remarkable film that tells the story of Poland’s second largest ghetto by focusing on the stories and songs of this amazing troubador. The songs are performed in this film by Klezmer supergroup Brave Old World.

Herszkowicz is described in the film as a beacon of light in one of the darkest periods of history. He literally sang for his supper. His songs dealt with the life and death struggles of everyday life. But he wasn’t above a bit of political commentary and his primary target was Chaim Rumkowski, the reviled, controversial Nazi-appointed Jewish leader of the ghetto.

Called the “King of the Jews” by the ghetto residents, Rumkowski had the unenviable task of maintianing law and order and co-operated with the Germans by providing workers for their factories…He had his image imprinted on ghetto stamps and money, developing a cult of personality not unlike that of Eastern European dictators of the Cold War.

The documentary features interviews with several survivors from Lodz, including Chava Rosenfarb, the Yiddish writer from Toronto who was sixteen when the war broke out. Many survivors still remember Herszkowicz’s songs. In one scene, a group of survivors now living in Montreal sing his songs around a table.

Throughout the documentary, these songs are beautifully presented on stage by Brave Old World. The group owes much to ethnomusicologist Gila Flam, daughter of a Lodz survivbor, who uncovered many of Herszkowicz’s songs for her thesis. The group performs a dozen or so of these “street songs” as part of its repertoire.

The documentary also features more than 300 images from the Lodz Ghetto, including recently discovered colour slides taken by a German accountant…